Years ago, while shell collecting in the placid shallows of the inland side of a barrier island, I reached down to grasp and examine an apparently empty shell specimen. Ankle deep on firm ground in this pleasantly sunny and somewhat exotic milieu, I was expecting no trouble. Without warning, scaly legs exploded from out of the shell, and in surprise, I dropped the flailing creature back into the shallow sea.
Hermit crabs are well adapted to their environment. By using the easily available abandoned shell homes made by others, they need not expend energy to build their tiny castles. And, as I had just experienced, they have the capacity to surprise and drive off predators.
But this excellent arrangement has a glaring weakness: As the creature grows, its inert borrowed home does not. From time to time, therefore, they must leave their tiny shelter to seek a larger domicile and, in that period of transition, they are exposed and vulnerable.
Democratic societies are similar: Most of the time, elected leadership supported by career civil servants (including the military) can serve, guide and protect the nation. When unexpected emergencies arise, trained personnel going by preexisting guidelines, can respond vigorously. Usually, citizens in a strong democracy are fairly safe from contingencies.
But now we U.S. citizens are vulnerable.
Election time is upon us, and we have never been more divided.
As we all know, red folks and blue folks seem to inhabit states of consciousness so divorced from one another that it is difficult to image us living in the same space at the same time. And, even though citizens on both sides are passionate, the percentage of voter participation is low.
Optimists point out that this is not the first time the republic has been so challenged: our ancestors survived the Civil War period, the time of the Great Depression, and the Vietnam era. Ok — fine. But now we face an additional and completely new hazard: Governmental and civil institutions that usually can be counted on to help unite us have been systematically eroded. Mainstream media, the senior civil service (aka “Deep State”), the Department of Justice, the judiciary, and even the Electoral College have all been weakened by jeering and contemptuous reprobates, led by an ungenerous, narcissistic bully.
In addition, there is now another never-before-manifested threat: Internet trolls from several sovereign entities (including, now, Iran) have been trained to sow discord within the United States. Using the anonymity of the internet, and their newly inculcated, idiomatic English, they infest social media and increase the polarization of an already polarized nation. Allied with hate-radio shock jocks, trolls and Limbaughs continue to keep us off balance.
Inklings of the coming dangerous times have been vouchsafed in previous elections. The victory parade of the George W. Bush inauguration was marred by egg-throwing activists, incited by a vote count called off by a partisan Supreme Court. The last presidential inauguration —that of Donald J. Trump — was an occasion of even more violence.
We are now 40 some weeks from the election and the chief executive and commander in chief who is a candidate, is more devoted to chaos than to civility.
It is not too hard, in this context, to empathize with the unnerving, in-transition difficulties of a particular shallow sea denizen.